Ninety-four percent of Senegal's population is Muslim, and the city of Dakar is rich with Islamic iconography, from taxi window decals, to murals and graffiti, to intricately decorated public buses. By the end of our third week of classes, the equivalent of the first quarter of African Civ, we could identify most of the faces we had been seeing around the city as prominent religious leaders of the major Muslim brotherhoods in Senegal. We read about the teachings of Ahmadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, who wrote many books and poems about how to be a good Muslim and how to study the Quran. During our last weekend in Senegal, we visited Touba, the holy city of the Mourides where Ahmadou Bamba is buried, and we were able to see the original handwritten copies of his texts.
Rather than have formal class on Fridays, we got to go on trips to different parts of the country to help us contextualize the topics we were discussing. After learning about the history of slavery in West Africa, we visited Gorée Island, which was one of the last stops for enslaved Africans before beginning the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. We walked through the Maison des Esclaves (house of slaves) and saw where slaves were kept in separate quarters before they were walked through “The Door of No Return” to board ships. In Saint-Louis, Senegal, we saw the French and Portuguese architecture left behind from the time of colonialism, and we learned about the difference between settler colonies and exploitation colonies.
Living with my host family was probably the most enriching part of my Study Abroad experience. One week, we were discussing how many young Senegalese people migrate for work or education, and one of our homework assignments was to interview a member of our host family and build a family tree. My roommate and I discovered that our host parents had two children studying in France, another in Saint-Louis, and a niece and nephew staying with them from Guinea-Bissau! My host nephew, Etienne, would tell me about his girlfriend in France and I would tell him about the articles we were reading in class about immigration and long-distance relationships. I formed close friendships with young people in Dakar who would tell me more about Senegalese culture to complement our academic texts.
Even the moments of leisure were moments we could relate to our readings. We learned about how the groundnut (peanut) became an incredibly important crop for the Senegalese economy, and then my classmates and I would enjoy sugar peanuts on the beach. We partied at the base of the African Renaissance Monument one weekend and climbed into an 800-year-old Baobab tree the next! The more I learned about Senegal and West Africa, the more I connected with Dakar and its people and vice versa. Taking my Civilizations Core abroad was probably the best decision I could have made. I couldn’t possibly have connected with the material of the sequence as much as I did had I not had the opportunity to physically experience the spaces where history took place.